The book of Acts was written by the same author as the Gospel according to Luke. Yet, while the Gospel focuses on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Acts focus on what happens thereafter; it tells how the story continues. Acts reveals the ongoing unfolding of God’s salvation in the history of the Christian Community as it grows and reaches out beyond itself.
This is a radical departure from earlier New Testament documents, particularly the Pauline letters. Initially, Paul and his contemporaries very much expected Jesus’ return to be immanent. So, Paul’s letters often focused on preparing the community for Jesus’ return. For the Pauline letters, the present was the final chapter of earthly existence as a whole.
By the time Acts is written, however, the church realised that the return of Jesus might take a while. The present, therefore, is not a completion, but a new chapter that demanded a new identity. The church’s focus needed to shift from an inward and internal preparation to an active engagement in and with the world.
Acts reveals the identity of the people of God as the ones who had not so much witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ themselves, yet whose life still had been completely turned around by this event. These are the ones who, through their baptism, had been taken into the Resurrection: not literally – at least not yet – but still in ways that penetrated every fibre of their being and that turned them into something radically different and something completely new: They had turned into a community focused on mission.
And this is our double-identity as the church even to this day: A community. And focused on mission.
The idea of community is at the heart of Acts: And not just a community by name only, but a deeply united and interconnected community, and deeply united and interconnected not just in matters spiritual and religious, but also in other matters.
In Acts 4:35, for example, which was the reading appointed for the Sunday immediately following Easter Sunday, we learn that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
Shocking, eh? I told you this is radical and new!
And this is not only something to remember on the Sunday following May First. But as Christians, we must engage the biblical norm outlined in Acts 4:35 at all times!
This does not mean we have to all give our property and move in with each other. But we must strive to discover how Acts 4:35 translates into our 21st century reality as a global and diverse Christian community…
… Which is exactly what is not done by those who preach economic prosperity and personal wealth as a consequence of embracing the Gospel or who as Christians advocate for an unlimited and unbalanced capitalism!
I believe we must rather turn to the wisdom of monastic communities that will reveal God’s voice in our day and age and can offer wisdom for our particular contexts. And I am not just talking about traditional monastic communities, such as Benedictines and Franciscans. But I am also talking about what has been termed “New Monasticism,” a modern-day movement of communities of Christians of all ages and marital statuses that live together, hold a common purse, and that reach out to the poor, the hurting, and the lost. These communities are a prophetic presence in the church of our day.
Just a few days ago, for example, Justin Duckworth was elected Bishop of Wellington in the Anglican Church of Aoteaora, New Zealand, and Polynesia. What is remarkable about Justin aren’t just his dreadlocks, his age (he is 44), or his very casual style of clothing. But Justin, who is married with kids, is a founding member of “Urban Vision,” “‘a contemporary Order following Jesus on the margins.’ It has houses in Wellington neighbourhoods where life can be a struggle. In each of those homes, Christians live alongside folk from the margins.”
The fact that Justin was elected bishop reveals not only that we are indeed a church full of divine surprises, but it also reveals that the Spirit is moving us, and moving us to the margins. The relevance of Acts 4:35 is revealed in new ways among us as a push moving us away from our comfort zone to those in need.
Which brings me to the importance of “mission.”
First of all, I need to ask you for the sake of this sermon to ignore all the negative images popping up in your imagination when you hear the word “mission.” Yes, “mission” is one of those words, which unleashes havoc in so many minds – and for understandable reasons. Far too often the church misunderstood mission as a way to gain power over others. The horror of the Residential School System is but one chapter in a thick book containing the abuses by the church. We have sinned against so many. And we must never forget about it!
However, in our day and age we need to turn to reclaim “mission” in the way it was intended, not in the way it was misused. Mission is not about lording over others, but it is about serving people. It is about revealing the abundant life that God has already gifted to each and every one of us.
And today’s story from Acts is case in point.
There are a number of aspects in the story, and I want to point out four.
First of all, Philip is sent by the Spirit. This mission is not just dreamt up by an individual! I point this out, because often mission, even when it is gauged in religious lingo, turns out to be somebody’s ego trip. Just because you think this a good idea, doesn’t mean it really is the insistence of the Spirit. Discernment of the Spirit is essential in deciding directions and involvement. And this includes not just listening to our own needs, but also to the need of others and to the needs of the world.
This does not make mission optional, which is the second aspect I want to point out. Mission is at the heart of what it means to be church. Or to place it within the context of today’s Gospel text: we are the branches of the vine and we must bear fruit: for the sake of those who are hurting, and, interestingly, also for the sake of the body of Christ.
The interesting thing about vines is this: If the grapes are not harvested, but stay on the vine, the vine will wither. And the church will equally withers if she does not bear fruit, i.e. if she does not engaged in mission. Pruning the vine, therefore, is not so much a punishment of individuals who seem to have strayed from the truth. Rather, John meant it as a metaphor, very much understood by his contemporaries, to describe what must happen for the survival of the church as a whole – and what must equally happen for the salvation of the world.
But let’s get back to Acts.
The third aspect in today’s reading this: Philip is sent to an Ethiopian Eunuch, to somebody who is not at all part of the norm.
Eunuchs were considered unclean, and very much so. Even though the Ethiopian Eunuch probably had means as a court official, he was still an outsider. He was a pariah, who could easily be dismissed, overlooked, ignored, and marginalised.
Many of us here at St. Paul’s have had this experience. Many of us have been like the eunuch. We have been dismissed by our families, overlooked by the church, ignored by our neighbours, and marginalised by society. To realise that Philip is sent to preach God’s love to this kind of a person affirms what has been revealed over and over and over again: We all matter to God! God is deeply and abundantly in love with us, each and every one of us, whoever, whatever we are, and wherever we find ourselves on the journey.
This, however, also gives us a responsibility to look out for fellow eunuchs. Just because we have been marginalised doesn’t give us the right to ignore others who are consider less and small. God calls us to care and love, just as much as we have been cared for and loved by God.
And this includes people with different ethnic backgrounds.
After almost eight years in this pulpit, you know that this is a bit of a soap box for me. But it pains me to see the racism present at times in this beloved church of ours. Anglicanism is not Christianity for the English or those of English decent only. But I believe that the Spirit has something rather prophetic to say to the entire world through Anglicanism. And just as much as the Sprit moved Philip beyond a small and narrowly defined ethnicity to preach to a black African, so the Spirit calls us today to open wide our mission to all, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or background.
The final point I want to bring up is this: I do believe that mission is not done for its own sake. But mission has an ultimate goal and that goal is conversion, both the conversion of lives and equally the conversion of our society. Philip joined the eunuch not only to share a nice bed-time story. But Philip was told by the Spirit to share what he had experienced and to unearth the love that God had already planted deep inside the heart of the Ethiopian Eunuch. The encounter changed the Ethiopian Eunuch. It turned him around. It converted him to become a member of the body of Christ as he was baptised into Christ’s death and Resurrection.
Mission is about converting lives so that they can discover and claim God’s love for themselves.
And mission is also about converting the world to discover and claim God’s justice and peace for all creation.
God uses mission as a vehicle to bring about God’s reign of love, justice, and peace. This is why mission must include outreach, as much as Evangelism, as much as advocacy.
Today, we will commission the members of our church committee. And as much as this might look like another internal naval-gazing exercise, it actually is a deeply missional event. We will ask God’s blessing on those who will be charged not with the maintenance of our structures and resources. But these lay leaders are the ones to push and pull us forward in healing, worship, reflection, and hospitality. They are the ones chosen to lead us in our vision. These are the ones that will remind us that the Spirit says to this very community: Go! Go to the Eunuchs of our times! Go and celebrate the Gospel in word, and prayer, and action.
Pray, therefore, that we with these lay leaders may become more and more a community focused on mission.